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North Vietnam: Now Fiction and Essays from Hanoi

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Edited by Dan Duffy, with introductions and capsule biographies

Reviewed by Craig Loomis

The Vietnam Forum and Lac-Viet are two publications that came out of the Southeast Asian Refugee Project which was initiated by the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies in 1981. Both series feature literary works on Vietnamese history, folklore, economy, and politics. Coming under new editorship in the early ’90s, both The Vietnam Forum and Lac-Viet decidedly shifted their emphasis to more contemporary writers and themes.

This 1996 issue of North Vietnam Now: Fiction and Essays from Hanoi presents a most eclectic collection of works by Vietnamese writers who live, or used to live, in North Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, as well as some fiction and nonfiction from non-Vietnamese, mostly North Americans, who are familiar with Hanoi.

The first half of the book lends itself to fiction (short stories) from an array of North Vietnamese authors. The best of the bunch comes from the well-known author Nguyen Huy Thiep, with his cluster of stories entitled “The Winds of Hua Tat” (Ten Stories in a Small Mountain Village).1 These ten stories— they are essentially fables— come wrapped in a magical-realism that deals with the myths, superstitions and mysteries of the mountain folk of Nguyen Huy Thiep’s youth. There is, for example, the tale of “The Abandoned Horn,” a telling of how an ancient, forgotten horn was once used to kill a plague of “strange black worms.” Or how about “The Happiness Celebration,” the story of a young woman’s search for a husband who had “the virtue that was most precious and most rare.”

Not only do these tales offer students a reader-friendly introduction to ancient Vietnamese folklore and myth, but also, and perhaps more importantly, it is a good first encounter with Vietnamese literature. That the writer is Nguyen Huy Thiep, one of Vietnam’s most gifted storytellers, is certainly an additional treat.

On the other hand, Le Minh Khue’s two stories, “The Distant Stars” and “The Last Rain of the Monsoon,” take a hard look at the realities of twentieth-century Vietnam. Le Minh Khue is an important writer whose delicate narratives focus on people struggling to make emotional connections, people groping for a moment’s stability. Whether they be three women whose job it is to detonate unexploded bombs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or the beautiful engineer who must decide between her husband and son and another man, Le Minh Khue’s characters are desperate to find a small peace in a chaotic world.2

book cover for North Vietnam Now
Fiction and Essays from Hanoi At the end of this first section of short fiction is Linh Dinh’s essay, “The Cat Sits on a Palm Tree: An Introduction to the Folk Poems, Proverbs and Riddles of Vietnam.” Although the poetry Linh Dinh translates is not specifically North Vietnamese per se, his material on Ca Dao poetry— what it is, its origins— is, once again, excellent introductory material for those students who know very little about the literary traditions of Vietnam. His folk poetry translations, especially the puns and riddles, are fun reading and beg to be compared with their Western counterparts. This poetry section can easily be read as a companion to Nguyen Huy Thiep’s folk stories, not to mention the many possibilities it offers instructors who might wish to discuss parallels between Ca Dao to that of other Asian poetry, Japanese haiku, and tanka, for example.

Turning to the non-fiction selections, I highly recommend the three short autobiographical essays by Nguyen Khac Vien, one of Vietnam’s most well-known intellectuals.3 His “The Old Banyan Tree,” takes us back to his youth, as well as the innocence and simplicity of village life. The other two essays, “Those Fifty Years” and “The America I Know,” are both relatively recent writings that give one man’s optimistic vision of a new and better Vietnam to come.

North Vietnam Now has more short stories (by both Vietnamese and one by the American author Wayne Karlin), as well as an unusual gathering of articles that, except for their Vietnamesque quality and occasional links to Hanoi, have little in common. For instance, there are three pieces by North Americans: one that discusses how Vietnam is grappling with the world of computers and cyberspace; another that outlines the history of corporate philanthropy in the country; and lastly, a personal narrative that details a young anthropologist’s life and times in Hanoi in the 1990s. Another article written by the Vietnamese art critic, art historian and artist, Nguyen Quan, entitled “Art in the Village,” gives an excellent account of the various kinds of art (sculptures, woodcuts, and paintings) that can be found in the villages throughout Vietnam, and goes on to discuss the different social and religious aspects such artwork contributes to village life. The only complaints I have with this provocative piece are that first, it sometimes becomes bogged down with wording and information that is beyond the nonspecialist; and second, it is sorely void of visual aids
(photographs, illustrations, drawings). Nevertheless, overall, the article is a good primer on Vietnamese village life and art.

One of the assets to be found in this volume is the research Dan Duffy, the editor, has done in providing additional information in the form of an introduction and capsule biography for each contributor, including which materials have been published in English. In my estimation, this in itself is one of the most noteworthy aspects of Vietnam Forum 15. The Vietnam Forum and The Lac-Viet Series are extremely important publications for anyone who wishes to know more about Vietnamese culture, specifically the literature and writers of Vietnam.4